Memories of growing up in Beecroft in the 1940s by Lesley Goldberg
A 1940s childhood in Beecroft could be a time of much freedom for local children. Beecroft Reserve was a place of tranquility and birdsong and its tracks were shortcuts to the homes of friends. Children played in groups there, looked for eels, frogs and tadpoles in Devlins Creek and jumped across on stepping stones.
Many children had bicycles, primitive compared with today’s multiply-geared models. During one school holiday period, John Goldberg and his friend John Cook, both aged about 13, decided to ride their bicycles, which had no gears, along the Pacific Highway as far as Gosford on a visit to John Cook’s grandparents, who lived at Terrigal. The journey took them most of a day. They returned along the same route two days later.
Effects of World War II
Few families owned a car, and in any case petrol was rationed during World War 11, 1939 – 1945. As a matter of course children walked to school and to Sunday school at one of the local churches.
John Goldberg and his neighbour Barry Duncan belonged to the Australian Air League which had its headquarters at Burwood Public School. On Saturday afternoons they travelled there by train, wearing their forage caps and insignia. The main activities were making model aircraft in balsa wood, marching and band practice. The leaders were teenagers. John’s sister, Sari, began a lifelong interest in nursing by helping her mother’s friend, Sister Margaret Howard at Kirra, her hospital on Beecroft Road. Sari recalls carefully carrying cups of tea to the patients.
At home children had serious responsibilities. Generously sized allotments meant many families had vegetable gardens and a chicken run. Children planted and watered the corn, spinach or beans and collected eggs. This was an important contribution to the household, especially if, like the Goldberg children, their father was away serving in New Guinea (he was in the Air Force) and income was reduced. Children had fewer clothes then as clothing coupons limited purchases during the war. However, Sari Goldberg wore beautiful dresses made by her mother Edna, an expert seamstress, who also handknitted jumpers for all the family. Edna won a prize for a knitted garment she entered in competition at the Royal Easter Show and participated in the knitting of balaclavas and socks for soldiers. Backyards also featured air raid trenches when Japanese air raids seemed likely in 1942. At this time children carried to school little first aid kits. The air raid shelters, however, soon filled with water.
The district had many music teachers. Hugh Roberts, who lived in Fiona Road, took lessons with Miss Edith Sherring in Hannah Street, the foundation for a lifelong love of music. Miss Sherring, he says, was strict with her pupils because of her love of the piano and tended to discourage putting children through the usual AMEB exam system because she thought it distracted from their developing musicality. Hugh believes Miss Sherring also taught at the tiny Arden school, then housed in the Presbyterian church hall.
Few books were printed during the war years because of paper shortages. Children eager to read welcomed the opening of the Beecroft Children’s Library in the School of Arts, now the Beecroft Community Centre. Before this they were dependent on gifts of books for Christmas and birthdays. John Goldberg recalls being the first borrower at the library when it opened in 1942. Beecroft Public School only acquired a library of any value in the 1970s when Commonwealth grants were given for school libraries.
The local community still staged plays at the School of Arts. Hugh Roberts, then aged about 10, recalls attending a performance there of a popular play written in 1931 and filmed in 1934, “The Barretts of Wimpole Street”. The occasion remained in his memory because he was anxious about the fate of Elizabeth Barrett’s little dog when her father discovered that she had eloped with her lover, the poet Robert Browning (fortunately Elizabeth had taken her dog, too) and he found the chairs very hard. He remembers that passing steam trains drowned out some of the actors’ lines.
Saturday afternoon matinees at local cinemas, at Thornleigh and Epping, were popular. Children arranged to go with friends to ‘the pictures’. Hugh Roberts claims that the audience at Epping was particularly noisy and Rosemary Neville (nee Rosen), a pupil at Arden, longed to be allowed to go but was forbidden by her mother. Rosemary thinks her mother saw the cinema as an unsuitable place for a well-brought up Arden girl. The matinee program began with serials and then cartoons followed, such as “Felix the cat”, “Popeye the sailorman” and the ever popular “Tom and Jerry”. After a short interval when there was a rush to buy ice-creams and sweets, a feature film was screened.
Home entertainment centred on “the wireless” programs. Among the more popular serials were an outrageous school parody, “Yes, what?” and the adventures of a secret agent “First Light Fraser”.
Clubs and organized activities
Although local boys cannot remember the Brownies and Girl Guides in Beecroft during the war years, the Scout Hall in York Street operated as usual. John Schubert recalls how, to earn his First Aid badge as a Cub he was tested by an external examiner, Mrs Mortley, who lived in Murray Road. She required him to fold and apply a bandage to her “pretend injured” arm. The cubs’ practical training in bushcraft was conducted in the nearby bushland.
There were no clubs offering football or netball but neighbours allowed children to play on their tennis courts. Very popular were the St John’s Boys’ Club and Beecroft Girls’ Club, both non-sectarian and open to children aged 10 to 18. The boys met on Saturday evenings in the Presbyterian Church hall, although the club had begun in the Anglican Church hall, hence its name. The girls’ club met on a week night. They held a yearly combined sports day at Cheltenham Oval. Mr (‘Squire’) Nathan was the organiser of the boys’ activities, which included a formal meeting before the physical exercise program began. Participants paid threepence each session and careful accounts were kept by their elected committee. Mrs Seale, wife of the local dentist Ossie Seale, played the piano for the exercises. The boys also vaulted and hurled heavy “medicine” balls in team games. In December the boys demonstrated their prowess at a display held in the School of Arts, practising hard to demonstrate their skills to their parents in the climactic event, a tableau where boys stood balanced on the shoulders of those below. They competed eagerly for places in this display.
Local residents ran less formal activities for children. John Schubert belonged to a stamp collectors’ club organised in the early 1940s by Mr Cummins. They met in a house, next to the home of the Beecroft Public School Headmaster on Beecroft Road. (Both houses are now demolished). Boys ‘swapped’ stamps and learned to identify unusual ones. Mr Cummins gave talks about stamps and advised on those worth collecting. John recalls spending his pocket money on a set of stamps to commemorate the arrival of the new Governor-General, the Duke of Gloucester, early in 1945.
Mr Bailey, who lived in Copeland Road East, employed a retired carpenter to teach carpentry skills to his sons and other local boys in his garage. When he was only about eight or nine John Schubert, whose father Alan was a well known local builder, learned to use a fretsaw and other tools and especially recalls making a cutout of a horse and a doll’s table. He was a rather studious child and his father encouraged him to go to boxing classes conducted by a retired boxer, Tommy Handley (or Hanley), in the Scout Hall on Saturday mornings. John recalls that mats were laid on the floor to define the boxing ring. A bout with a taller boy, Colin Alexander, had to be stopped because John was clearly outmatched.
These recollections of Beecroft in the 1940s reveal that, despite the war, children in the district had many opportunities for fun and it is clear that they had more freedom to roam the streets and bushland than is general today.